Food Chimeras

A chimera (kí-mer-ah) is a fantastic three-in-one beast first described by Homer in the Iliad. It had the head and body of a lioness, the tail of a serpent and emerging from the lion’s back, the neck and head of a goat that breathed fire! Over time the chimera has been taken up by other cultures influenced by the Greeks. The combination of features and qualities would change to meet local sensibilities. In Medieval Europe, chimera icons were often incorporated in illuminated manuscripts to depict the raw forces of nature, as well as hypocrisy and fraud. Chimeras were satanic creatures. They have remained popular in fantasy literature, film and television today and are featured in many video games. I’ve never come across a chimera in contemporary arts who was an ally. They are mostly creatures one needs to destroy. Chimeras are very much a meme of the moment.
Chimeras are metaphors, the most popular and productive way of developing new meanings in language. The recipe is simple. You take two (or more) things that are very different from each other and then speak of them as if they were the same thing. “All the worlds a stage” combines the ‘world’ with the image of a theatrical performance. But the world is not really a stage; it’s a world. It is only a stage in speech. Both the world and stage are next to each, but the actual connection between them is called juxtaposition, side-by-side as if their edges were touching (Can words have edges? another metaphor!). Metaphors exist in all modes of communication: speech is the most common (Homer’s description of the chimera), but also visual modes (a mosaic or a statue of a chimera), auditory modes (a recording of lion roars, goat bleats and serpent hisses, simultaneously), olfactory (imagine the smells of those animals combined), and haptic (a menacing presence which suggests a chimera through shadows and flashes of recognition). To transmute a metaphor is to take it from one mode to another: from a literary description to a mosaic to a statue, to a sound recording or song, to a (noxious) perfume to a special effect in movie or video game, while still retaining the qualities that give meaning to the original metaphor. It should not surprise us that the underlying logic of the chimera will proliferate in popular culture. Like all metaphors, it offers a fertile ground for the imagination.
My list of modes in which chimeras may dwell has omitted one important mode. Up until recently, I did not find much evidence of the chimera in the taste of food. Obviously no one is going to sit down to a burger that combines lion, goat and snake! But such a literal interpretation of the chimera misses the qualities that make the gustatory mode of communication work. Metaphors in this mode push our tastes to the limit and ask us to imagine the possibilities of tastes that have never existed before, just as Homer’s chimera was a beast that had never existed before, a singularity. Creating a new taste would be a truer transmutation of the chimera into the realm of foods.
I’ve been thinking about chimera foods lately based on several experiences I’ve had while living in Vienna this autumn. The first is the street food called Currywurst and the second is the bakery curiosity known as the Laugencroissant, or Laugenkipferl. These are both chimeras, even though neither of them contains any lion, goat or snake.

The story goes that Currywurst originated in Berlin in 1949 when an sausage stand owner named Herta Heuwer was given some Worcestershire sauce and curry powder by occupying British troops. She mixed them with tomato paste as a substitute for the hard to obtain ketchup that was a regular condiment for pork sausage that she sold at her kiosk. (Slackman, Michael, “National Dish Comes Wrapped in Foreign Flavoring”. The New York Times Jan. 26, 2011). This is the stuff of myth. That is not how such things originate. It is more likely that several snack food owners had been experimenting with alternatives for ketchup during the war years and that the curry ketchup now served with pork sausage was the outcome of this collective experimentation (Petra Foede, Wie Bismarck auf den Hering kam. Kulinarische Legenden. Kein & Aber, Zürich 2009; ISBN 978-3-0369-5268-0). This way of serving sausage has spread throughout the sausage stands of the German-speaking world.  I did not have chance to eat Currywurst when I was in Berlin, but I did eat it in Vienna. The server took an ordinary bratwurst, a pork sausage similar to an mild Italian salsiccia (N.B. this is not the same as what is called bratwurst in North America). He cut sausage into pieces on its paper plate, dusted it with a bright yellow curry powder. He then picked up a plastic squeeze bottle containing a think brown sauce and squirted this all over the sausage.

 

That sauce tasted more like a sweet mango chutney than a tomato ketchup,

but ketchup is itself within the family of chutneys. Kecap/ketjap refers to any fermented sauce in Indonesia, which is where the flavor profile of modern ketchup originated. Sweet chutneys have the same flavor profile, but add vegetables or fruits that are salt-pickled before being cooked in the spices.  The stuff served with Currywurst isn’t really a tomato ketchup with curry powder, although in supermarkets I have seen bottles of curry ketchup that are little more than that, and tomato paste continues to be an ingredient in curry ketchups. The street version is an entirely new approach to ketchup: sweeter, and sourer at the same time, with fruit accents in the aroma and the taste. In fact, the only quality that is similar to tomato ketchup is the consistency. The sprinkling curry powder was almost tasteless. It had none of the acidic bite of the cumin and powdered cayenne in most well made powders. One could imagine a full-bore Indian curry with sausage as the focal ingredient. But Currywurst would not be that dish. In Berlin, though not in Vienna, the Currywurst is often served with French fried potatoes. That suggests to me that the sauce is actually the taste appeal of the dish. Currywurst is a chimera. It juxtaposes three classes of food, sausage, potatoes and a curry ketchup to produce a taste where the elements remain separate, but still combine.

The second chimera food I encountered is the Laugenkipferl.

Laugenkipferl

This is a cross between a croissant (Kipferl in German) and a pretzel. Just to add an exclamation point to the beast, the baker will sprinkle some sesame seeds or course salt grains on the top.  “Wait,” you say, “those are two completely different textures! how can you combine them?” You got it in one! That combination of textures is what makes this a chimera. The secret to a pretzel’s texture is that the dough is briefly boiled in a solution of sodium carbonate (washing soda, soda ash). This salt is used to regulate acidity, keep powders from caking in high humidity, and when mixed with mild acids will produce carbon dioxide gas and  cause a dough to rise.  It is one of the components of the alkaline salts used to give raman noodles their characteristic flavor and texture. In China, it is used in the crust of traditional Cantonese moon cakes, and in many other Chinese steamed buns and noodles. It is also used in the production of the sherbet ice cream. When we eat sherbet the heat of our mouths causes a chemical reaction between the sodium carbonate and citric acid in the flavoring that releases carbon dioxide gas and gives us the cooling and fizzing sensation associated with sherbet.  But back to the Laugenkipferl. After boiling, the pretzel dough is then baked. The heat of the oven causes a very strong Mailliard reaction on the surface of the pretzel resulting in the characteristic brown color. Small amounts of sodium carbonate on the surface also result in a distinctive “drying” sensation when we eat a pretzel.

A croissant, as readers of this blog know, is my favorite breakfast food. It is made from yeasted, puff pastry. This in itself is a delicate balance of forces. Puff pastry has tons of butter in it. The butter and yeasted dough are folded and rolled many times to create thin, alternating layers of butter and dough.  Yeast and butter do not get along very well. To make them work together takes patience and skill. The dough must be allowed to rise after rolling and shaping until it has doubled. The croissant is a stunning achievement of the baking arts. To this balancing act, the inventors of the Laugenkipferl take the risen dough and throw it in boiling solution of sodium carbonate. Then they bake it. The yeast continue to grow and produce gas (carbon dioxide and water vapor) that is trapped between the butter layers of the dough, causing the pastry to rise dramatically and produce the swirling diaphanous interior crumb and bicolor segments on the outside.  The result is a juxtaposition of textures: pretzel on the outside, croissant on the inside.

 

 

Dominique Ansel, the New York pastry chef, invented the cronut a few yeas back. That is a croissant/donut chimera. Croissant is arguably a pastry that lends itself to combining with other textures. With the Laugenkipferl we have a combination that is regionally meaningful: love of pretzels plus love of croissants equals love of Laugenkipferl. And they are not just for breakfast anymore. The bakeries will sell them to you stuffed with ham and lettuce.  This could give bánh mì shops (Vietnamese sandwich shops that fill mini-baguettes with Southeast Asian ingredients) a run for their money. Consider: a Laugenkipferl stuffed with Currywurst!  That’s a chimera worthy of Homer.  

 

 

Mushrooms in Prague

I have always been fascinated with the persistence of old practices of eating in cities. We are so accustomed to thinking about urban provisions as something that happens in marketplaces and supermarkets that we rarely notice the households that continue to bake, pickle, can, and smoke their own food products. Even older than these practices are those city dwellers who gather their foods, seasonally, from urban spaces most of us would never think of as sources of edibles.

Back in those romantic days of Counter Culture communes (1965-75), there was an anthropologist (Hawaii 1948) and author of handbooks for gathering wild foods in North America named Ewell Gibbons.

Wild Food Adventures

Euell Gibbons

In a series of books, Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop; Beachcombers Handbook; and Staling the Good Life, he advocated eating nutritious but neglected wild plants, like lambs quarters, rose hips, young dandelion leaves, stinging nettles, cattails, purslane and amaranth. Some of these have become popular enough to be sold at food stores (rose hips, dandelion leaves, and amaranth seeds) or farmer’s markets (purslane and amaranth leaves), but others still must be gathered in the wild. I would love to find a box of fresh lambs quarters in the lettuce section of the food stores I frequent. They are here in Vienna. What a delicate, sweet green they are! They are served here as a topping for vinegary potato salad or combined with other lettuces in a “leaf salad.’ A foodie friend of mine in Chicago in the 1990s told me he picked lambs quarters in his yard!. But his yard had never been chemically fertilized and was mostly weeds anyway. So what treasures he found there rarely surprised me. Still I doubt he got enough for a salad.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while visiting relatives in Prague. Tom, my second cousin-in-law  (Is that a thing?) is an avid mushroom hunter. One Saturday morning, after playing his usual round of tennis down the street, he walked to his secret places in the forested, river ravine preserve in front of his house (He swears he’ll go to his grave without revealing where it is. Except his son knows exactly where tit is, of course. Ah, kinship!), returning home about an hour later with a basket full of fresh-picked, wild mushrooms. I couldn’t identify most of them, but I accepted that they were perfectly edible. After all, Tom had been picking and eating wild mushrooms since he was a boy and he’s my age (i.e. OLD). His wife, Maryla, never flinched. She had been eating whatever he brought home for all the forty-odd years of their marriage. For supper, she made a simple scramble of chopped, sautéed mushrooms and eggs. No herbs, no fancy oils, just salt and black pepper. It wasn’t a pretty dish. Maryla did not scrape off any black gills, as I might, before she chopped the mushrooms. The resulting scramble had a grayish tint. But it was delicious.

Most Europeans today are still deeply enmeshed in the seasonal round of uncultivated foods,even though many of the wild foods have begun to be cultivated to meet the demand. These include fiddle ferns and ramps in the spring, wild strawberries through the early summer, wild mushrooms in the late summer, chestnuts and venison in the late fall. The positive feelings toward seasonality, namely, that “We can eat them now, so let’s do that, because soon the best tasting ones will be gone and we’ll not taste them until next year,” are reflected in agricultural produce as well. Asparagus, cultivated strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, gooseberries and currents in high summer, hazelnuts in late summer, wine, lambs and suckling pigs in Spring, ducks and geese in late autumn,  All have the reputation for at least having their finest, most refined taste only at certain times of the year. At other times, it is a compromise to eat them. Many choose to forgo such off-season produce in favor of other options. This is really different from the attitude of most city-dwelling North American foodies. I can’t speak for rural dwelling folks there, although hunting in general is a well-know part of how small-town folk in North America represent themselves. But in the cities, the recipe rules. And if the recipe says fresh strawberries, then regardless of whether they have any taste or not, fresh strawberries, flown in from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, are purchased and ‘enjoyed.’

Mushroom Venor at a Farmer's Market in the Technical University, PragueIf your European household is not blessed with someone who has a secret forest full of wild mushrooms, all is not lost. All the markets have mushrooms in season. Here is a stand at a farmer’s market that is held every Saturday on the campus of the Technical University, down the street from Tom and Maryla’s house. As you can see, there are lots of healthy looking chanterelles (lower right) and porcini (center), as well as cultivated shiitake (upper right) and oyster (lower left). You can tell the porcini are wild because their edges have been nibbled by little furry forest animals. That’s the sign of authenticity!

Let’s face it, most of us city-dwelling foodies are not about to down a plate of pre-nibbled mushrooms. And that is precisely what eating Tom’s mushrooms brought to mind for me. The relationship between people in cities and those aspects of reality that they categorize as nature is an instrumental one. By that I mean that only those aspects of nature that can be controlled (infections and other pests), sanitized (foods and fibers), channeled (water and sewage), regulated (air temperature, velocity, and moisture), or camouflaged (marshlands, deserts, and scrub) are acceptable neighbors. All other ‘inhabitants’ of nature are unwelcome, and certainly to be avoided at all costs. I’ve written about this before with examples of what city engineers do with wild animals who invade neighborhoods (it’s not pretty), and extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. In such cases, our fears of a world out of balance can only be placated by feats of engineering and logistical marvels that return the status quo ante in a ridiculously short time. WE DECLARE THAT WE WILL NOT SUFFER AT THE HANDS OF NATURE! and if we are forced to do so, we will hold humans accountable for our pain.

I’m still working out the implications of this particular view of nature held by many urbanites, even if it is only spoken of when the going gets tough. I suspect it is only one of several views that are available depending on the context. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress. Watch this space.